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I had a nightmare this week: I was back in high school, trapped in my adolescent mind, still pointlessly pining for one of my brother’s friends. It’s kind of ridiculous that, even in a dream fiction, I cannot turn the tide of that one-sided relationship in my favour.
Worse than reliving the rejection, though, was having tasted the fear, anxiety and hesitancy of that horrible stage of life—exhaustively parsing the implications of every word and action: What will people think? I can’t say that! Surely this will make him like me?
I was relieved to wake up in the quiet of my room, warmed by the self-assuredness of midlife. I still spend more time than I should worrying about what other people think, but, little-by-little, the courage to say what needs to be said wells up and, on occasion, spills out.
I shared a cup of coffee with a friend this week a few hours before learning about the terrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in Paris where 12 innocent people were killed, and 11 more injured, by armed terrorists. Completely unaware of the tragedy, my friend and I blithely drifted onto the topic of satire, a form of humour I explore in this column. I may travel the gravel side-road of satire—versus the superhighway frequented by the likes of The New Yorker and Charlie Hebdo—but it is a thread of kinship that connected me, in a different way than most, to the victims of this atrocity.
There are those who say that some limbs ought not to be explored. Some subjects are sacrosanct. Thankfully, there are thousands of journalists around the world who do not share this timidity. Unfortunately, so intense are the risks these men and women face today that Reporters without Borders has published a “Guide for journalists who are forced to flee into exile” which includes tips and contacts to “assist them during the long and difficult process of starting a new life.”
The book’s pages are animated with satirical cartoons and the cover image depicts a terrified man, running away while his pen and paper float to the ground—a host of weapons are in hot pursuit: guns, grenades, swords and hatchets. The cartoon calls into question the popular understanding of pens and swords and which of the two is mightier. With so many journalists in mortal danger, the swords appear to be winning.
In a 2012 interview for Le Monde, that is now eerily prescient, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, said of the limb upon which he was precariously balancing (having provoked the ire of extremists): “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Charbonnier’s brand of fearlessness is characteristic of many journalists today. And fearless story-tellers, including satirists, are as essential to us in this age as they have ever been. Yes, they can offend. But their craft demands experimentation and being unschooled of the phrase, “I can’t say that!”
Of course, when the limits of good taste are breached the rest of us can simply exercise our freedom and respond in kind: close the wallet, turn up the nose, or, if we dare, stretch the boundaries of imagination to at least consider what they’re trying to say.
Charlie Hebdo’s “relentless pursuit of provocation” as Andrew Hussey pointed out, for The New York Times this week wasn’t something invented by the magazine. It belonged to “a very Parisian tradition” dating “to before the French Revolution, when it was termed “L’esprit frondeur,” or “slingshot wit.” A “fronde” was a catapult used to hurl stones at the king in times of insurrection.”
Provocation is a necessary aspect of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is, in turn, an accelerator of creativity, which assures that democratic societies will have sage wisdom, sadistic, wit and a little bit of everything in between to draw from as they grow and mature. Extremism, religious or otherwise, is a deficient ideology that cannot see this bigger picture because it lacks the eyes to see it: It is like a boorish, myopic, arrogant, ignorant undisciplined adolescent child.
Any society that succumbs to the cowed posture that ideological extremists seek to impose will consign itself to a living nightmare: an indefinite state of socio-cultural adolescence, ruled by fear, anxiety, hesitancy and, ultimately, violence and oppression.
One cannot imagine what went through Stephane Charbonnier’s mind when the terrorists came for him and called him by name. I suspect he knew that having kneeled in response to terror would have made him unrecognizable to himself. At least he knew who he was and what he stood for.
Charb, as he was known, and those around him, faced guns with pens and they died holding the front line in an ever-expanding war on freedom of expression. In honour of their bravery and willful act of defiance, dans l’esprit de liberté, egalité, et fraternité... je suis Charlie.